- In This Remote Country: French Colonial Culture in the Anglo-American Imagination, 1780–1860
The legacy of French colonization has received a great deal of attention from historians following studies such as Patricia Nelson Limerick's [End Page 237] The Legacy of Conquest (1987) and especially Richard White's The Middle Ground (1991), which replaced or at least supplemented Turnerian teolology with descriptions of "the racial, political, economic, and ethnic complexity of the frontier" (Watts 220). This terrain has been of less interest to literary scholars, however, with the rare exception of Gordon Sayre's comparative study, Les Sauvages Américains (1997). The undergraduate literary canon, even in the wake of the Heath anthology's multiculturalist revisions, has similarly minimized the French past, especially in contrast to the Spanish. The fifth edition of the Heath gives us only three French selections in volume A (to 1800) as compared with a dozen Spanish. The "Spanish America" section of volume B (1800–1865) contains several Anglophone selections, as well as Spanish writings in translation. The Norton, evidently returning to an Anglo orientation with the seventh edition after a foray into multiculturalism, has excised the French altogether (represented in the sixth edition by Champlain), while retaining at least recognition of Hispanic origins in selections from Columbus, Casas, and Cabeza de Vaca. The anthologies represent largely presentist responses to the legacy of imperial success: the persistence of the Spanish and the decline, after 1763 and 1803, of the French. The French decline is the foreground of Edward Watts's In This Remote Country.
Watts investigates how the Anglo-American empire understood what it replaced in the "middle ground" that flourished prior to the War of 1812: the French and Métis culture of voyageurs (rivermen), coureurs de bois (fur traders), habitants (peasant farmers), associated Native Americans, and a few acculturated Anglos. Watts argues that Anglo-American writers found in the French colonial past grounds on which to debate the future of the United States: "Could it learn to live in peace with itself, its neighbors, and the rest of the world, happy on the margins of world power rather than at its center?" (5). It was still quite possible to entertain an optimistic answer to this question during the antebellum era, as dissident writers drew from a nostalgic French past a vision of a culture "less greedy, less racist, less aggressive" than America was turning out to be (4).
This book continues Watts's ongoing project of bringing the Old Northwest into the early and antebellum American literary canon. In An American Colony (2002), Watts traced the development of a distinct literary culture in the Old Northwest, arguing that the region is best understood as an internal colony of the United States. Watts and David Rachels made [End Page 238] a wealth of documents from this literary culture (as well as from the Old Southwest) newly available in a classroom anthology, The First West: Writing from the American Frontier, 1776–1860 (2002) (reviewed in EAL 2003). In In This Remote Country, Watts gives us a means of approach and an argument for canonical recognition of commentators on colonial French and Métis culture such as Henry Marie Brackenridge, James Hall, Juliette Kinzie, and William Whipple Warren. None of these writers is anthologized today, except in Watts and Rachels's The First West. Hall is familiar (though seldom read) as Melville's source for the story of Colonel Moredock in the "Indian-hating" chapters of The Confidence Man. The others are virtually unknown, even though, as Watts demonstrates, they share our current disciplinary preoccupations with nation, race, class, and gender, seeing in the French and Métis past an alternative narrative of American origins and a critique of Anglo imperialism, racism, acquisitiveness, and patriarchy. Watts shows how some of Hall's stories, for example "A Legend of Carondolet" from Legends of the West (1832), would pair nicely with Irving's "Sleepy Hollow" or "Rip Van Winkle," both pitting Yankee culture against a prior, less acquisitive...